River of Darkness Francisco Orellana’s Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon, Buddy Levy (Bantam Books, New York, 2011)
In 1541 Gonzalo Pizzaro and Francisco Orellana, cousins, both at the time important landowners of huge blocks of Peruvian land, embarked on an expedition over the Andes and into the unknown in search of further gold and treasures, the fabulous but mythical El Dorado where it was said their leader was coated each day in gold dust that he deposited on the lake bottom after his daily bath. They also sought cinnamon that was also worth fortunes in those days. Thus began an adventure of exploration unique in the annals of such explorations.
The plan was for Gonzalo Pizzaro to leave Quito first with an army that consisted of 220 soldiers, 200 horses, ammunition and powder, a herd of more than 2000 swine, llamas as pack animals, 2000 war dogs trained for battle, and 4,000 Indian porters shackled to prevent escape. Franciso Orellana was to follow soon later with his own smaller army. They were to meet at the confluence of two rivers on the eastern side of the Andes. They soon learned that horses were virtually useless in the Amazonian jungle, that conditions were much more difficult than they could ever have imagined, food was difficult to come by, and were forced to split into two parties. Orellana was to proceed down the river to find food and then return with it to save Pizzaro and his starving army. This proved to be impossible as the river flowed so swiftly Orellan knew he could never make it back, so he decided to continue downriver as his only alternative, even though this made him vulnerable to accusations of desertion and treason. Pizzaro eventually made it back to Quito, having eaten his horses and dogs, virtually crawling back in rags with the remnants of his army, not knowing what happened to Orellana but convinced he had deserted him. Orellana, after the most incredible hardships, managed to make it all the way to the Atlantic and eventually back to Spain.
This is, as the sub-title suggests, an account of Francisco Orellana’s incredible journey down the Amazon River, the first (and quite likely still) the only person to have ever completed such a journey. That he managed to complete this journey at all is quite miraculous, a combination of luck, unusual ability, determination, and yes, more luck. In 1541 Gonzalo Pizzaro and Francisco Orellana, cousins, both at the time important landowners of huge blocks of Peruvian land, embarked on an expedition over the Andes and into the unknown in search of further gold and treasures, the fabulous but mythical El Dorado where it was said their leader was coated each day in gold dust that he deposited on the lake bottom after his daily bath. They also sought cinnamon that was also worth fortunes in those days. Thus began an adventure of exploration unique in the annals of such explorations.
There were left written accounts of this fantastic journey, by Orellana and one of the Priests that was with him, and a few others as well. There are also records of interviews he gave after returning, and there is also an extensive literature on this period and voyage as well. Levy has used the available materials to reconstruct Orellana’s journey in an interesting and enjoyable book, interesting and enjoyable if you find some 250 pages of almost unremitting misery to be such (in all fairness that is basically what it was). There is no doubt such a journey was made, and no doubt that it was unbelievably difficult, and also no doubt that Levy’s research among the available materials was thorough and scholarly. He also obviously did his research on the area in question, including a trip to the Amazon to see for himself what it was like.
Buddy Levy is a journalist rather than historian. He wrote this book to entertain as well as to tell the story of this incredible adventure. I believe he did a truly wonderful job, the book is well written, a delight to read, and also informative. But of course in order to make it so Levy had to fill in details that he could not actually know were true. This is completely understandable but in a book of this kind, also risky. Consider something like the introduction to the prologue: “Conquistador Francisco Orellana stood on the sodden riverbank and regarded the ceaseless roil of the river, uncertain where the dark waters were heading. In the dying light the water appeared black as it slithered downstream, moving like the skin of some gargantuan dark snake disappearing into an endless jungle. Orellana turned and beheld his bedraggled troops…” There is a danger here in this type of reconstruction because if not done well you risk losing verisimilitude and thus the reader, you cannot write passages with no credibility, they have to lend authenticity to the account. I believe Levy has managed this exceedingly well and at no point did I have the sense he was damaging the account. This is no mean achievement.
The author also uses quotations taken directly from the written accounts that validate the authenticity of his own account although sometimes most unpleasant:
“…Pizarro determined to torture a better response from the Indians. Soldier Cieza de Leon recalled the dark and brutal process: ‘So he (Pizzaro) ordered some canes to be fixed across poles, like rather thin hurdles, about three feet wide and seven in length, and the Indians to be put on them and tortured until they told the truth. The innocent natives were promptly stretched on these frames or barbecues…and some of them were burnt.’ Of course even after having been tortured with flames, the unfortunates could offer nothing but their cries of agony. Disgusted, Pizzaro then threw the victims—some from the racks and others, including a few women, torn from their pleading families -- to the dogs, ‘who tore them to pieces with their teeth, and devoured them.’”
Gonzalo Pizzaro had a reputation for unusual brutality. Orellana, according to Levy’s account, was a very different sort who tended to treat the natives much more gently (although at one point he hung a number of them for no reason as a warning to others). He was also apparently a rather skilled linguist and managed to learn some of the native languages which helped make it possible for him to bring what was left of his command home. But even Orellana, with his interest in the natives, had no idea how to exist in the jungle, what foods were fit to eat, which not, how to hunt game, and so on. It never occurred to the arrogant Spaniards to even try to learn such things, one of the reasons they endured the hardships they did. Mostly they were given food by friendly tribes and when that failed they simply stormed the villages along the way and took it. The accounts of this almost unbelievable achievement I believe were dismissed as true for a time because among other things they reported the existence of Amazonian women warriors and a land where only women lived, bringing in men when necessary. I believe that Orellana and others did believe this. But in all fairness, I think Orellana only reported encountering a few women fighters and “stories” of such a land. I do not see why, for the Spaniards, this was any more fantastic or far-fetched than the belief in El Dorado. Anyway, it seems clear that as recent scholars have argued, and as Orellana’s account indicates, there were millions more Indians living along the Amazon that previously imagined.
There is of course much more to this book than I can mention here, including Orellana’s acquittal from treason and his doomed attempt to return to the Amazon and seek the riches he believed were there. I found this work interesting, informative, and convincing. I believe I learned quite a lot about an area I had previously little knowledge about. I would certainly recommend it to those with such interests.